Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, recently cited two new scientific studies claiming poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic.
Keeve E. Nachman, a co-author of both studies and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, told Kristof researchers had intended to test only for antibiotics, bust since an analysis for other chemicals and pharmaceuticals didn’t cost extra, researchers requested those results as well.
Since bird feathers, like human fingernails, accumulate chemicals and drugs that an animal is exposed to, scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University decided to examined feather meal — a poultry byproduct made of feathers, to determine the varying amount of chemicals in poultry.
In the first study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, they found feather meal routinely contained a banned class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones.
Kristof points out what many regular FriendsEAT readers know all too well — antibiotic-resistant infections kill more Americans annually than AIDS, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. [Too much exposure to acetaminophen can cause serious liver damage]. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.”
Because stressed chickens render tougher meat and grow more slowly, the industry recommends poultry growers use Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens. Tylenol and Prozac are also used for the same purpose.
The other peer-reviewed study, reported in Science of the Total Environment, found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested. Almost 9 in 10 broiler chickens in the United States had been fed arsenic, according to a 2011 industry estimate.
Kristof says poultry farmers often don’t know what chemicals they feed their birds because huge food companies require farmers to use a proprietary food mix, and the farmer generally doesn’t know what is in it.
“I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic,” said Nachman, co-author of both studies. “We buy organic.”
Last year, the FDA acknowledged that the ingredient, Roxarsone, used in chicken, swine and turkey feed contains arsenic. The FDA authorized the use of Roxarsone in March 1944 and by the mid-1960s, its use as a feed additive was widespread.
Besides being carcinogenic, chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and declines in brain functions.
Run But You Can’t Hide
While restricting poultry purchases to only organic growers will help to reduce exposure to unwanted drugs and arsenic, a study claims poultry products labeled “no antibiotics added” carried antibiotic-resistant E. coli and Enterococcus (another bacteria that causes invasive disease in humans), although the microbes were less prevalent than on conventionally raised birds.
However, in a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found the voluntary removal of antibiotics from large-scale U.S. poultry farms that transition to organic practices is associated with a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant and MDR Enterococcus.
The study’s lead author speculates that transmission of resistant bugs might occur between antibiotic-using and antibiotic-free operations, from farm workers themselves, or contamination that occurs at processing plants.
“Processing plants are supposed to be cleaned between conventional and organic animals,” she says. “But how well does that actually happen?”
Buying only organic beef and poultry may not completely remove the threat of exposing your family to antibiotics and other harmful drugs found in conventional meat products, but at least you reduce exposure to these harmful substances when eating organic.